The morning of Dec. 14 began ominously for me: a queasy stomach and unusually achy body, especially shoulders and head. The symptoms suggested I might have caught some sort of “bug” and I’d be wise to stay home, get some rest.
Still, duty called.
For the second time in three years, I’d volunteered to go ptarmigan hunting in the Chugach foothills, one of scores of local bird lovers and citizen scientists to participate in Anchorage’s annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC). I felt obliged to at least give it a try.
I called my count buddy, Jan Myers, and cautioned her that I might be in the early stages of the flu or some other wintertime illness, and therefore contagious.
“Are you sure you want to go?” Jan asked.
When I confirmed that to be so, she replied, “Well if you’re going, I am too. But only if you promise to turn around if you start to feel worse.”
And so, in predawn grayness, we left the Prospect Heights trailhead and headed toward Near Point. Though hopeful of seeing ptarmigan, I wasn’t especially optimistic. Three days earlier I’d done some scouting along the flanks of neighboring Wolverine Peak and hadn’t found any signs of the birds, not even tracks. Subalpine thickets that might normally provide shelter for willow ptarmigan were largely covered with hard-packed, wind-drifted snow. And while wandering through open tundra, I hadn’t found any sign of the white-tailed and rock ptarmigan that inhabit higher alpine terrain.
I had, however, encountered three gray-crowned rosy finches, an uncommon upland sighting in my experience. The finches briefly stopped to peck around, no more than 20 feet from where I stood, adding an unexpected delight to my hill climb.
By the time we began our Saturday hike with Denali and Guido (neither of them “bird dogs”), the queasiness had ended, but my body was dragging more than usual despite a jolt of high-test (fully caffeinated) mocha.
“One step at a time, no pushing it,” I once more assured Jan.
And then, of course, I pushed it. Slowly. One of the great things about the CBC is that it pays to move in unhurried fashion, because that makes it more likely you’ll notice birds.
After crossing the bridge over Campbell Creek’s South Fork, I looked at Jan. “I wonder if there might be any dippers along the creek.”
Jan recalled the spot where we’d seen an American dipper in summer. It seemed a long shot the bird would still be here, but what the heck. I descended to the creek and looked around. Nothing. Or at least no birds. For no sure reason, I wandered downstream a ways. Oh well, we tried, I thought.
A moment later, a small black bird zoomed upstream just below eye level, no more than a few feet away. Dipper!
It was a great start to our count day, a real surprise—and a good omen.
This is one of the things I love about the CBC, the possibility of finding birds you weren’t expecting, when you’re paying closer attention than usual.
A short while later, I spotted a raptor circling closely over the treetops. Through binoculars I confirmed it to be a northern goshawk, another uncommon bird to add to our list.
With Jan in the lead, we moved from the forest into the subalpine zone. Winding through thickets, we stepped through snow that was crusty on top and a semi-firm sugar below. Slow going, energy sapping.
“You doing okay?” Jan wondered. “We can turn around any time.”
“Let’s go a little farther,” I suggested, knowing this was silly but wanting to find some ptarmigan.
Though the air had been calm lower in the forest, it was whipping across the flanks of Near Point. There was no need to reach the summit, so we traversed the hill. Once out in the open, we got blasted by high winds. Happily for us, temperatures were in the low thirties, so the wind’s bite wasn’t too bad. But harsh enough that we didn’t stay long in open terrain.
We did see several “trails” of ptarmigan tracks, but no fresh ones. And none of the birds. Skunked again, as we’d been two years earlier. Others were luckier: the day’s final count would include six willow and three white-tailed ptarmigan. Some years, none are found.
More surprising than our failure to find ptarmigan was that in 5½ hours, we noticed only two black-capped chickadees and no boreals or red-breasted nuthatches. A few days earlier, I’d seen large mixed flocks of the songbirds. That shows the hit-and-miss nature of such counts.
Our final count: 50 common redpolls, 31 white-winged crossbills, five ravens (we saw lots more in the afternoon, returning to the hills on their evening commute, but rules prevented us from counting them, since they’d likely been tallied in town), three pine grosbeaks, the two black caps, and one each of these: black-billed magpie, bald eagle, hairy woodpecker, and the highlights of our day, the northern goshawk and American dipper.
Most personally pleasing, I suppose, is that the three gray-crowned rosy finches I’d spotted on Wolverine’s flanks were included in Anchorage’s “count week” tally, the only ones recorded this year.
The official count results compiled by Anchorage Audubon (www.anchorageaudubon.org) included these bits of information: 157 counters reported a record-tying 52 species on count day (matching the number in 1984) and 14,894 individual birds. Among the species observed was the first Swainson’s thrush ever reported on CBC day, spotted (and photographed) by one of Alaska’s premier birders, Thede Tobish, in his yard. Other notable facts & figures: all-time highs were counted for bald eagles (45), northern goshawks (8), Wilson’s snipes (5), yellow-rumped warblers (4), northern saw-whet owls (3), and boreal owls (1, tying the record). Besides “my” gray-crowned rosy finches, count week birds included the first-ever Wilson’s warbler noted as part of the local CBC. As usual, bohemian waxwings were the most abundant birds (6,304), followed by my favorites, black-capped chickadees (1,681).
Among the many statistics compiled by count leaders (special thanks to Louann Feldmann), the 52 species (55 including count week) seems especially notable. Few local residents would guess that such a diversity of birds continues to inhabit Anchorage during its harshest season. This too is among the things I love most about the Christmas Bird Count, that it documents the unexpected variety (and number) of birds that continue to share the local landscape with us, even through the depths of winter.
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at firstname.lastname@example.org.